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State of New York State History

Who Will Tell Our State Story?

Linda Sloan, New York State Barn Coaltion

Who Will Tell Our State Story?:
Demographic Decline and the Demise of New York State History

The decline in the population of New York State bodes poorly for the preservation of New York State history as a viable component of the social fabric. The implications are disastrous although not immediate. There is still time to act. But each day the State downplays the importance of state and local history is a moment lost never to be regained. By the time people realize the loss, it may be too late.

What do I mean with these dark and gloomy words as the new year begins? During the past year, the state population dropped an estimated 1,894 people. The number may seem like a small drop in the overall population but the repercussions are significant. New York is now securely the fourth largest state. After the 2010 census, the state lost 2 congressional seats continuing its decades-old slide. Two seats are easy to handle – each party sacrifices one. What will happen if the New York loses just one after the 2020 census?

The answer is pretty simple. Upstate will pay the price. While the state population only declined by just under 2,000 people, over 190,000 emigrated to other states. That doesn’t mean they all went to Florida but it does highlight that perhaps the number one export in the state is people. The exporting of people is especially pronounced upstate where 41 of 50 counties lost population (the other 12 are metropolitan New York City and the Lower Hudson Valley based on this definition of upstate). Overall, nearly 850,000 people left the state since 2010 for other states, the largest emigration in the United States.

Downstate, the situation is exactly reversed. If upstate is exporting people to other states and the population isn’t declining too much, then what’s keeping the numbers up? The answer is the Big Apple. New York City draws people from around the country and the world. While the state population declined by about 2,000 people, almost 120,000 people arrived as immigrants. While all of them didn’t settle in the New York City, it is reasonable to conclude that the overwhelming majority did.

These movements continue long term trends. Governor Cuomo has just announced a Graduate to Homeownership pilot program of $5 million. The goal of the program is to encourage recent college graduates to remain upstate, “to put down roots in upstate communities.” Whether or not this program is successful is a separate issue. It calls attention to the demographic realities.

There once was a time when people knew where they were Kennedy was shot. Increasingly fewer and fewer New Yorkers even remember where they were on 9/11 or were in New York when it happened. Think of the recent history anniversaries in New York State history:

French and Indian War (250th)
Erie Canal (200th)
War of 1812 (150th)
Civil War (150th)
World War I (100th)
Women’s Suffrage (100th).

What does these events in New York State history mean to people today, especially to downstate people when so many of the events occurred or involve people upstate?

Nearly 200 years ago, Marquis de Lafayette triumphantly returned for a national tour of the country he helped create. He was well aware that the Oneida Nation had been allies of the United States during the American Revolution just as he had been. Yet when he visited the Oneida, he discovered that the New Yorkers living in the nearby communities had little to no memory of the Oneida participation in an event only 45 years earlier. It wasn’t part of their memory because neither they nor their ancestors were here then. Some were Yorkers who had migrated west on the Route 5/Route 20/I-90 corridor along the Mohawk River. Their American Revolution heritage was based on events in Massachusetts, not New York. Some were newcomers to America working on the Erie Canal so the events in upstate New York during the American Revolution were not part of their memory either. How quickly the past is forgotten.

One lesson I learned from my Teacherhostels/Historyhostels was that upstate people were more likely to have direct biological connections to New York’s past than downstate people. Upstate people were more likely to be descendants of the English, Dutch, Palatines, and various Indian tribes than were downstate people. New York’s past wasn’t simply something they read about in books or saw on the web, it was something they heard about from their family and saw in person in the homes, historical societies, and markers in their community. They were part of that history.

But you don’t even have to go back to the settlers in the 16 and 17 hundreds to witness the change.  Today, even the Castle Garden and Ellis Island migrations to New York that did so much to define the city are on their way out. While still a formidable presence in the city, the era of the three I’s in New York City politics, Ireland, Italy, and Israel, is diminishing. Ellis Island immigrants are not the wave of New York’s future or even present, JFK Airport is.

The musical on immigrant Hamilton asks who will tell the story. We may well ask who will tell New York’s story. Who will care about these anniversaries? Will they be the legacy of a dwindling number of upstate descendants and Manhattan elitists and antiquarians? Will immigrants today connect with immigrants of the past? Will newcomers to the state become rooted in the history of their new home? Will America’s past become part of their past?

The challenge facing New York to transform immigrants into New York Americans is one the state has faced before. So far we have been successful but past success doesn’t guarantee future results. The question, of course, is one not only facing New York but the country as whole. The pace, as always is faster in New York with the depopulation of upstate and the immigrant growth downstate. New York also brings to bear a 400-year story of colonial and national history as well as millennia of Indian history. Truly our story is one from ice age to global warming. If ever there was a need for a New York State governor with a vision on an issue of national importance, now is the time. Remembering our history helps build a path to a better tomorrow for all who live here. Who will tell our story? What happens if no one does?